FM says Israel carried out assassination: 'Part of the war'

Senior Hezbollah commander killed in alleged Israeli strike as border tensions mount

Terror group says Wissam al-Tawil, a leading officer in the elite Radwan unit, has been killed in southern Lebanon, in move said to deal ‘painful’ blow

Senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil (L) with the terror group's chief Hassan Nasrallah in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
Senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil (L) with the terror group's chief Hassan Nasrallah in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

A senior commander of a secretive Hezbollah force was killed in an alleged Israeli strike in southern Lebanon on Monday, ratcheting up tensions as violence along the border threatened to escalate into all-out war.

Wissam al-Tawil, a commander of the terror group’s elite Radwan force, was killed in the Lebanese town of Majdal Selm, when a missile slammed into the SUV he was in, according to Lebanese security sources, in a strike that analysts said represented a significant blow to the Iran-backed group.

The apparent assassination will likely also complicate US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s bid to keep Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from expanding into a second front, as the top US diplomat makes a whirlwind tour to the region.

Hezbollah confirmed that Tawil was killed, naming him as one of the group’s fighters but provided few other details.

The Israel Defense Forces said fighter jets carried out strikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, including sites where the terror group’s members were operating, but did not confirm that it had killed Tawil.

Tawil was from Khirbet Selm, which neighbors Majdal Selm, some 10 kilometers (6 miles) from northern Israel.

While reports initially called him a deputy commander of a unit within the Radwan force, he was later identified by various news agencies as a commander, with some Israeli reports claiming he was the elite unit’s top official.

Lebanese security officials said a second Hezbollah operative in the car with Tawil was killed in the same strike.

Tawil was one of the most senior Hezbollah commanders killed since hostilities broke out on the Israel-Lebanon border exactly three months ago, said a source in Lebanon familiar with the matter.

Since October 8, Hezbollah has launched hundreds of rockets, drones and anti-tank missiles over the border in support of fellow terror group Hamas amid Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which followed the October 7 massacres in southern Israel.

“This is a very painful strike,” a second Lebanese security source said, while another predicted that “things will flare up now.”

Senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil, left, with Qassem Soleimani in an undated photo distributed by Hezbollah. (courtesy)

Following the announcement of Tawil’s killing, Hezbollah published a series of pictures of Tawil in fatigues. Other photos show him meeting with terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah, former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, killed in Syria in 2008, and assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, signifying his stature among the array of Tehran-backed groups that have stepped up attacks on Israel and US forces in the region in recent months.

In a television interview later Monday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Israel killed Tawil, making him the first Israeli official to claim responsibility for the strike, even if it was widely understood that it was carried out by the IDF.

Israel typically prefers to maintain a policy of ambiguity regarding its alleged operations abroad and Katz, who took over as foreign minister earlier this month as part of a previously agreed rotation deal, made a point of saying that Israel has not taken public responsibility for the strike last week that killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut.

“Regarding the attack in southern Lebanon, yes, we did take responsibility for the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force,” Katz told the right-wing Channel 14 network, which corrected him for referring to the foreign arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps instead of Radwan force.

“This is part of the war,” added Katz.

This undated picture released by Hezbollah Military Media shows senior Hezbollah commander Wissam a;-Tawil, who was killed in Kherbet Selem village, southern Lebanon, on January 8, 2024. (Hezbollah Military Media, via AP)

The Radwan unit is Hezbollah’s elite commando force. According to reports, the unit had been stationed along Israel’s northern border and was planning an assault on northern Israel, but the plot was put on hold following Hamas’s surprise assault.

Other members of the Radwan force killed during the hostilities include Abbas Raad, son of a leading Hezbollah politician. He was killed in an apparent Israeli strike in November.

Daily exchanges of fire on the restive frontier between Israel and Lebanon have appeared to intensify in recent days, after the alleged Israeli strike last week that killed Arouri, who was living a Beirut suburb under Hezbollah’s protection.

On Saturday, Hezbollah fired a barrage of more than 40 rockets and several missiles at a sensitive air traffic control base atop Mount Meron, some eight kilometers (5 miles) inside Israel, in one of its largest attacks in years. Two radar domes were hit by anti-tank guided missiles, according to footage published by the terror group. The IDF admitted unspecified damage was caused, without elaborating.

Smoke rises over buildings on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese border village of Khiam following a reported Israeli strikes on January 7, 2024 (Photo by Rabih DAHER / AFP)

Israel has threatened to go to war against the terror group if the strikes do not halt, with some 80,000 people from northern Israel currently displaced by the fighting, alongside tens of thousands from the south evacuated due to the Hamas onslaught and ensuing war.

“The priority isn’t to get into a war,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in comments published by the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. But he added that “we are willing to sacrifice… They see what is happening in Gaza. They know we can copy-paste to Beirut.”

The skirmishes have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Lebanese civil defense members spray with water the street by the building that was hit by an Israeli strike targeting Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in the southern suburb of Beirut on January 3, 2024. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Hezbollah has named 153 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 19 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

The terror group has matched Israel’s bellicose threats with its own, while also claiming to not seek war.

“If the enemy thinks of waging a war on Lebanon, we will fight without restraint, without rules, without limits and without restrictions,” Nasrallah said in an address last week marking the anniversary of Soleimani’s slaying.

“Neither side wants a war, but the two sides believe it is inevitable,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Everybody in Israel thinks it’s just a matter of time until we need to change the reality” so that residents of the north can return to their homes, he said.

Officials inspect damage after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, December 27, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Hezbollah and Iran-backed sources told Reuters that Israel had also stepped up attacks against the terror group in Syria recently, signaling that tacit arrangements designed to keep tensions from snowballing over the years had been shunted aside by the war.

“They used to fire warning shots – they’d hit near the truck, our guys would get out of the truck, and then they’d hit the truck,” a commander of the Iran-backed alliance said of alleged Israeli raids on arms transfers handled by Hezbollah before October 7.

“Now that’s over. Israel is now unleashing deadlier, more frequent air raids against Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems in Syria. They bomb everyone directly. They bomb to kill.”

Mourners march with the bodies of three members of Hezbollah killed in southwestern Syria along the Golan Heights, during the funeral in Beirut’s southern suburb on December 9, 2023. (Ibrahim AMRO / AFP)

The US is still hoping to keep fighting at a low boil, with analysts saying all-out war would devastate both Lebanon and Israel, due to Hezbollah’s vast firepower.

“This is a moment of profound tension for the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” Blinken told reporters in Doha on Sunday.

The US diplomat is expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up his trip in Egypt.

Since October 8 — a day after thousands of Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 and kidnapped over 240 in southern Israel — Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the northern border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

The alleged Israeli killing of Arouri last week sparked further fears of broader conflagration, as he was the most high-profile figure to be killed since October 7, and because his death came in the first strike on the Lebanese capital since hostilities started.

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